Parenting

No, Breast Isn't Always Best

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Two weeks after I brought my baby home from the hospital I called my mother and the conversation went something like this:

“Hey Mom, you mentioned once that breastfeeding never worked for you [with my brother].”

“Right.”

“Was it because he was so voraciously hungry he wouldn’t latch?”

“Yes, that’s exactly why.”

We had joked from the beginning that our son had inherited his uncle’s appetite. From day one this kid wanted to eat on demand. Patience to get a good latch was not an option. After an hour of middle-of-the-night struggling in the hospital with a nurse sandwiching my boob and practically forcing it into his screaming mouth, I finally gave in and asked, “When can we just feed this kid?” Upon being told it was “Mommy’s choice” I told my husband to get the formula from the cabinet beneath his bassinet. I’d never seen a baby so happy in his life as when that silicon nipple finally landed in his mouth.

But that didn’t stop me from wanting to at least try to breastfeed, to no avail. Crying in hunger meant I was too late and he was too outside of himself to latch. Waking him to feed was impossible. Six days after giving birth my son and I were the newest (and, at least on his part, the youngest) members in attendance at a local breastfeeding clinic. I whipped it out in front of a group of breast-baring mothers who were aghast that I had the courage to leave the house so soon after giving birth.

My sleeping babe was stripped down to his diaper and pressed against me in the hopes that skin-to-skin contact would motivate him to wake enough to eat. With some help I was able to get him to latch sleepily, but by the time he did, the clinic was over and we had to leave. Despite my best attempts to repeat the success at home, I was only able to get him to latch twice. Both times the poor kid was so sedated that he fell asleep 10 minutes into his meal. Nothing would wake him except his ravenous appetite that refused to waste time latching in order to be quenched.

So, I attempted to pump. Do you realize what an incredible time sucker pumping can be? They encourage pumping moms to pump every time their baby would normally eat in order to maintain their supply. Sure, if I had a nanny and a maid I’d be able to stay attached to a pump all day. Pumping bras are only good for so much and, quite frankly, pumping that often makes you feel like a dairy cow in a production line. All the warmth and beauty of breastfeeding does not transfer over to the motorized sound of a pump smacking away at your boobs. What’s more, my son was rapidly increasing his food intake, which meant that it took over an hour to generate enough just for one meal.

After my husband went back to work (this was our yearly vacation) pumping became even harder. It soon became clear that I could either spend my time bonding with my pump, or bonding with my son. Finally, one morning I threw the pump against the wall in a fit of rage, furious at myself and my crap body for not being able to provide for my child.

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The psychology of breastfeeding is maddening. And I wasn’t alone. A friend who had her first child a few years ago took her own struggle with breastfeeding very personally. “When it’s midnight and your baby still won’t latch, you have no idea how terrible you feel as a parent watching them struggle with hunger. All these mothers kept telling me to breastfeed, as if I couldn’t provide for my child correctly because I gave her formula. Let them watch their babies starve and tell me what they’d do.”

One mom at the clinic I attended spent 8 hours a day with her babe attached to her breast and another 3 hours in the middle of the night pumping away in order to supplement, because he just wasn’t getting enough to eat. At least 2 months old, her son looked smaller than my newborn and was struggling to put on weight. When I heard how much time she spent breastfeeding I remarked that she worked a full time job.

“I don’t have a job,” she replied, ashamed.

“Yes, you do,” I observed, “feeding him is your full time job.”

“Well,” another mother remarked, “at least you’re pumping. Breast milk from a bottle is still better than formula.”

The woman responded with a weak, tired smile, but doubt filled her expression.

“Try wearing your baby in a sling,” the lactation consultant advised her, “and let him play with your nipples. That might inspire more productive suckling.”

I thought the woman would burst into tears.

Two weeks later, during that phone conversation with my mom, I told her what the lactation consultant had suggested. She exploded into hysterical laughter. “What the hell? Is she a hippie? Was she high? I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life!”

After we both had a good chuckle she asked, “What are you so upset about?”

“Well, there’s all these statistics about breastfed babies being less sick and having higher IQ’s,” I explained nervously.

“Susan, you and your brother were both formula fed. You both turned out wonderfully. You didn’t catch the plague and you’ve got a Master’s degree. What are you so worried about?”

I felt the weight of societal pressure being lifted off my shoulders by her experienced common sense. And I never looked back. Breast may be best for some women and children, just not for me and mine. I packed up my pump and decided that I’ll try again for the next one, but what really matters in the end is that my baby is well fed and happy. And when my one month old smiled up at me during his bottle, I knew that was all the approval I’d ever need.

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